Stargazing in the San Luis Valley

Nestled in the heart of southern Colorado, the San Luis Valley is a hidden gem for stargazers and astronomy enthusiasts. Renowned for its pristine dark skies, this region offers an unparalleled opportunity to witness the wonders of the night sky, boasting some of the darkest skies in the lower 48 states. The San Luis Valley’s unique geographical features and its commitment to preserving its natural darkness make it a prime destination for those looking to explore the cosmos.

The Dark Skies of San Luis Valley

The darkness of the San Luis Valley skies is no accident. The high elevation, dry climate, and remoteness all contribute to minimal light pollution. In recognition of these exceptional conditions, the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve was designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2017 and the town of Crestone became recognized Dark Sky Community in 2020.

Efforts to preserve the valley’s dark skies are evident in local policies and initiatives aimed at reducing light pollution. These efforts include promoting the use of shielded outdoor lighting, advocating for dark-sky-friendly practices, and raising awareness about the importance of protecting natural nightscapes. Such measures ensure that the San Luis Valley remains a sanctuary for stargazers and astronomers alike.

Top Stargazing Spots in the San Luis Valley

The San Luis Valley boasts several prime locations for stargazing, each offering its own unique vantage point of the celestial wonders above.

1. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve: One of the most popular destinations for stargazing in the San Luis Valley, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve offers a surreal landscape that is perfect for night sky observation. The vast dunes provide a stunning foreground to the starry sky, and the park’s remote location ensures minimal light pollution. Visitors can enjoy ranger-led astronomy programs during the summer months, which provide valuable insights and enhance the stargazing experience.

2. San Luis State Wildlife Area: Located just west of the Great Sand Dunes, the San Luis State Wildlife Area is another excellent spot for stargazing. The area features expansive open spaces and offers unobstructed views of the night sky. It is less frequented than the national park, making it a quieter and more serene option for those looking to immerse themselves in the tranquility of the night.

3. Zapata Falls Campground: Situated at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Zapata Falls Campground offers a unique stargazing experience. The elevation and clear skies provide excellent conditions for viewing the stars, and the sound of the nearby waterfall adds a soothing backdrop to the stargazing experience. This location is particularly favored by campers who wish to combine their love of the outdoors with their passion for astronomy.

4. Blanca Wetlands: For a more off-the-beaten-path experience, the Blanca Wetlands offer a tranquil and remote setting for stargazing. The wetlands’ reflective waters can create beautiful mirrored images of the starry sky, adding a unique dimension to the experience. This spot is perfect for those seeking a more solitary and contemplative stargazing session.

5. UFO Watchtower: Located in Hooper, this 10-foot tall viewing platform gives visitors a 360 view of the San Luis Valley and unobstructed stargazing opportunities. Who knows? Maybe you’ll see an extraterrestrial flying around too.

6. Crestone: As mentioned above, Crestone has been internationally recognized as a Dark Sky Community and has several serene stargazing spots. The town of Crestone produced this map to show 3 of the best spots to see the night sky: the entrance to the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, BLM campsites and pullouts right outside of town, and the Crestone Ziggurat (a spiritual tower).

7. Bachelor Historic Loop Tour: This 17-mile loop provides a driving tour of Creede’s mining history during the day and several beautiful stargazing spots at night. There are many interpretive stops and pullouts to choose from to get out of the car and see the cosmos. The loop starts and finishes in Creede, but be careful driving it at night as the road has a couple narrow stretches and steep grades.

8. Big Meadows Reservoir: This reservoir is located in the San Juan Mountains about 11 miles west of South Fork. There’s a campground, picnic area, and shoreline around the 600-acre reservoir – all perfect for stargazing. The waters will also reflect those bright stars, making you feel like you’re surrounded by them.

Best Conditions for Stargazing

To make the most of your stargazing experience in the San Luis Valley, it’s essential to consider the best conditions for observing the night sky.

1. Clear Skies: The most crucial factor for stargazing is clear skies. Check the weather forecast before heading out to ensure there will be minimal cloud cover. The dry climate of the San Luis Valley often results in clear skies, especially during the summer and fall months.

2. Time of Night: To avoid any sun light, plan to stargaze at least 1 1/2 hours after sunset or 1 1/2 hours before sunrise.

3. Moon Phases: The brightness of the moon can significantly impact stargazing. For the best views of stars, planets, and deep-sky objects, plan your visit around the new moon phase when the moon’s light is minimal. Conversely, if you wish to observe the moon itself, the first and last quarters are ideal.

4. High Elevation: The San Luis Valley’s high elevation, averaging around 7,500 feet, provides thinner atmosphere and less air pollution, resulting in clearer and crisper views of the night sky. Higher altitudes also reduce the atmospheric turbulence that can distort the light from stars.

5. Seasonal Considerations: While stargazing can be enjoyed year-round, certain seasons offer unique advantages. Late spring and summer provide warmer nights and the chance to see the Milky Way and many familiar constellations. Winter, though colder, offers longer nights and the opportunity to view different constellations and celestial objects.

Other Considerations

1. Protecting the Dark Skies: In order to protect our areas beautiful dark skies, there is often little to no light in some of the best stargazing spots.

    • Tread carefully and know your way back to your car.
    • If you can, use a red light. These lights do not affect night vision and can be less startling to nocturnal creatures with light-sensitive eyes.

2. Stay Warm: Even in the summer months, temperatures drop at night. Be sure to bundle up.

3. Have Fun! If you end up stargazing on a night with less than ideal conditions, there is still a lot to experience in this beautiful landscape! A full moon may wash out the stars but will brighten everything around you and make you feel like you’re on another planet. Don’t forget to look up what nocturnal animals may be in your area too – you may see and hear owls, coyotes, bobcats, kangaroo rats, and more! Just be safe and remember to never touch any wildlife.

The San Luis Valley is a stargazer’s paradise, offering some of the darkest skies in the country and a variety of unique locations for observing the cosmos. Whether you’re a seasoned astronomer or a casual stargazer, the valley’s commitment to preserving its natural darkness ensures that you can experience the night sky in all its glory. Pack your telescope, a blanket, and some hot cocoa, and prepare to be amazed by the beautiful stars.